Canada is reopening its borders to those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in September, but the move is raising questions about the future of travel and about inequalities around the world.
Leisure international travellers will be allowed in starting Sept. 7 — without having to quarantine — if they have been vaccinated with one of the four vaccines approved by Health Canada: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson.
However, there are millions of people around the world who have been vaccinated with other vaccines not yet approved in this country. The World Health Organization has approved two other vaccines not on Canada’s list: Sinovac and Sinopharm.
Maira Quintanilha lives in Edmonton and has been separated from her parents, who live in Brazil, for the past 18 months.
But there was some hope the family could see each other again when her parents got fully vaccinated in the spring.
“I did believe that would be one of the things that would help us reunite without having to go through additional hurdles to come into Canada,” Quintanilha said.
However, her parents received two doses of Sinovac, which is not approved in Canada.
“It was the only one available to them at that point… We believed it wasn’t the best for them as individuals, but thinking collectively, it was still worthwhile,” Quintanilha said.
Now, the family is unsure whether – and when – they will be able to reunite.
“If that vaccine is approved by the WHO and it was given to millions of people in mostly emerging economies, the first question that comes to mind, is that equity in health?” Quintanilha asked.
“Those that are in better countries, in economics that are leading the globe… get better vaccines than those that are in countries that have less access to prime health care, (who) get the short end of the stick once again.”
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Monday that Canadians have made a lot of sacrifices during the pandemic and that is why Canada is being cautious around what vaccinations it will accept as proof of vaccination at the border.
“We know the WHO does have a list of vaccines they consider safe and effective, and we’re monitoring that data with our international partners,” she said.
“This approach we’re taking is really built on; a) protecting the gains we’ve made, and; b) using the best possible science and evidence to make these decisions going forward.”
However, Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, said this type of thinking is problematic.
“We’re taking a very myopic view of the world. There’s a lot of the world beyond the G7,” he said.
Bowman argued other non-Health Canada approved vaccines in use around the world right now, such as Sputnik V, are safe and effective.
“Canada is contributing to the problem by having such a short list of what we’re willing to accept,” he said.
“In the months ahead, and maybe years ahead, it will be even more problematic. It’s really unfair (to) people coming into Canada.”
Nicholas King, a professor in the bioethics and epidemiology department at McGill University, said inequalities start to present themselves when travel is determined by the type of vaccine a person received.
“We already live in a world where different countries have approved different vaccines, have different vaccines available and widely different vaccination rates and have different approaches to vaccination and international travel,” he said.
“You’re inevitably going to have inequalities where residents in countries with high vaccination rates will have a lot more freedom to travel than residents coming from lower vaccination rate countries.”
King said he is sympathetic to the idea that ideally everyone has the same freedom of movement, but he noted there are already widely unequal patterns of movement and ability to move around the world.
“We live in a world of haves and have-nots. I think the difficulties that are going to be posed for international travel by COVID-19 and by differential vaccination rates will follow those pre-existing patterns,” he said.
As for Quintanilha, she and her family are taking a wait-and-see approach to determine if her parents will be able to travel to Canada. She is also hoping more guidance will be issued to travellers.
“I do understand the science (that) we know nationally is important, but we also need to consider the science that goes behind those other vaccines,” Quintanilha said.
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“It is complex because science is supposed to be something that goes across borders.”